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Iran parliament in a maze of hardline institutions

Iran Mania
February 20, 2004


Friday, February 20, 2004 - ©2004 IranMania.com

TEHRAN, Feb 20 (AFP) - Iran's parliament is one of just a few elected bodies in Iran, and as reformists have discovered, control of it does not translate into enough real power to challenge hardliners who control the institutions that matter.

Over the past four years, the reformist-controlled Majlis has churned out a string of bills aimed at democratising the 25-year-old Islamic republic and easing Islamic social regulations.

And they assert they had the mandate to do succeed, given that Iran's late revolutionary founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, once said "the Majlis is the pinnacle of public affairs".

Parliament is also promoted by the regime as a manifestation of Iran's republican status, with the 290-seat chamber also having five seats reserved for recognised religious minorities -- Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians -- and 13 woman MPs.

But it lives in an often-uneasy coexistence with other institutions, a sometimes schizophrenic state of affairs that the regime terms "Islamic democracy".

Legislation is subject to tough scrutiny from the Guardians Council, a 12-member senate-like body of jurists and clerics who screen all laws to see if they comply with their ridged interpretations of Islamic law and the constitution.

More often than not, reformist legislation has been rejected. Either it is unceremoniously binned or it is sent back with suggestions for extensive amendments that effectively kill off the original purpose of the bill.

It was also the Guardians Council that ruthlessly culleds the list of prospective candidates for Friday's election. It weeded out some 2,300 would-be MPs -- most of them reformists -- meaning that it effectively has the power to determine the make-up of the Majlis.

And the Council has also reflected the concerns of powerful religious foundations who control much of the economy, by blocking moves to open it up to greater foreign investment and private industry.

Protracted disputes between the Guardians Council and the Majlis can always be sent to the Expediency Council -- another conservative-run oversight body that is headed by powerful former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Once seen as a moderate, Rafsanjani is now considered a central pillar of pragmatic conservatives, and the Expediency Council frequently takes the side of the Guardians.

While largely powerless, Majlis deputies have profited from the fact that debates are also relayed across the country by state media -- ironically another conservative-controlled bastion. So the chamber has served as an effective platform for their calls for change.

In the end, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say in all matters of state. He rules over Iran under a concept known as Velayat-e Faqih -- governorship of the jurist -- which gives him sacred powers akin to those of an Imam, or successor to the Muslim prophet and leader of the Shiite faith.

Elsewhere, religious conservatives wield enormous power through the judiciary. The Islamic republic's courts have been particularly unforgiving to reformist activists, and even those who technically enjoy parliamentary immunity.

Outgoing reformists already fear a judicial backlash once they are ousted from the Majlis, as is widely expected given that most of them have been barred from standing in Friday's polls.

And even while reformists were in the parliament and a reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, has been in office, the courts undermined their positions by targeting newspapers, dissidents and pro-democracy students.

With conservatives expected to win Friday's elections, Khatami and his reformist colleagues -- also increasingly powerless in the face of hardline opposition -- are also under threat.

The parliament can impeach the president and ministers if needed, but the incoming conservatives may just choose to be patient -- Khatami's second and final term in office ends in mid-2005.

 

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